The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Happy Thanksgiving! What composer, music or performer are you grateful for? Plus, the Pro Arte Quartet repeats the FREE but fantastic opening concert of its complete Beethoven cycle this Sunday afternoon

November 28, 2019
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ALERT: One of the Thanksgiving traditions for music fans is that from 10 a.m. to noon today, Wisconsin Public Radio will again broadcast highlights from this year’s honors concerts by choirs, bands and orchestras from the Wisconsin School Music Association. Music education is something to give thanks for. You can hear middle school and high school student performers from around the state as well as WPR’s usual Thanksgiving offerings of American composers and music, and then special Thanksgiving programs about gratitude.

By Jacob Stockinger

Happy Thanksgiving!

Today – Thursday, Nov. 28, 2019 – is Thanksgiving Day.

It was Sergei Rachmaninoff (below) who once remarked, “Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.”

How true, how true.

There is such a wealth of composers, works and performers — going back many centuries — that we can be grateful for. In the Comment section, The Ear wants to hear from you about what one you would name — with a YouTube link, if possible.

But this year he has his own choice: the “Sacred Hymn of Thanksgiving” – by Beethoven (below), who used it as a movement in his late String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132.

You can hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom, where the playing of the four string instruments also gets an interesting and fascinating graphic depiction of its structure.

The composer wrote this sublime and other-worldy music when he recovered from what he thought was a life-threating illness.

But with the Beethoven Year of 2020 fast approaching – along with celebrations of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth – The Ear has another reason for his choice.

If you missed last Friday’s superb FREE opening concert of the complete cycle of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet (below, in the new Collins Recital Hall of the Hamel Music Center), you have a chance to catch a second performance this coming Sunday afternoon, Dec. 1. (Members, below left are David Perry and Suzanne Beia, violins; Sally Chisholm, viola; and Parry Karp, cello.)

From 12:30 to 2 p.m. the Pro Arte will performance the same program – and ultimately the complete cycle of six concerts — for Sunday Afternoon Live at the Chazen. You can attend it in person for FREE in Brittingham Gallery 3 (below) of the museum or you can stream it live.

Here are links to the program and to the streaming portal and the program: https://www.chazen.wisc.edu/index.php?/events-calendar-demo/event/sunday-afternoon-live-at-the-chazen11/

https://c.streamhoster.com/embed/media/O7sBNG/OS1C0ihJsYK/iqf1vBMs3qg_5

And here is a link to the complete schedule of the Beethoven string quartet cycle, done over the next 14 months, by the Pro Arte Quartet, which includes background on the Pro Arte. You’ll notice, by the way, that the Sacred Hymn of Thanksgiving will be performed on the program for next Oct. 2:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/11/19/classical-music-this-friday-night-nov-22-the-uw-madisons-pro-arte-quartet-starts-its-beethoven-cycle-of-the-complete-16-string-quartets-here-are-the-dates-times-venues-and-programs-for/

 


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Classical music: Veterans Day is a good time to hear Bach’s musical prayer for peace

November 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today – Nov. 11, 2019 – is Veterans Day.

There is a lot of classical music that can be used to honor the holiday and the men and women who serve in the military.

This is not the day to remember the dead. That is Memorial Day.

So it is worth recalling that Veterans Day started out as Armistice Day in 1918 when World War I ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Here is a link to more about the holiday found on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veterans_Day

One could celebrate by using brass bands and other military ensembles playing patriotic music and marches.

But there seems to be too much conflict in the world, and the dream of ending war and armed conflict seems as distant as ever, given certain political trends and unfortunately regressive and destructive forces at work right now.

Instead, The Ear wants to honor what should be the deeper purpose of the military: To secure peace.

For that reason, here is a YouTube video of a  memorable performance of “Dona Nobis Pacem” (Grant Us Peace), the ending prayer from the Mass in B Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach.

The four-minute work is performed more slowly than usual, but also more movingly and soulfully, by the famed Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, all under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner.

Do you agree that it is a wish that honors the true purpose of the military?

If you know of other appropriate music to mark the holiday, please leave the title of the work and the names of the composer and the performers along with, if possible, a YouTube link.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: The 10th anniversary concert of the Middleton Community Orchestra hit all the right notes – including a surprise of high beauty

October 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Wednesday night at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, the mostly amateur but critically acclaimed Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by Brian Ruppert) celebrated its 10th anniversary.

The MCO hit all the right notes. And there were many of them, both big and small.

But perhaps the biggest one was also the quietest one.

It came during the repetition section near the end of the heart-rending slow movement of the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622, by Mozart.

The Ear knows the piece and considers it one of the most perfect compositions ever written. But suddenly he heard the familiar work in a fresh way and with a new appreciation, thanks to the talented guest soloist J.J. Koh, who is principal clarinet of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. (You can hear the slow movement in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The movement was going beautifully when suddenly, Koh (below) brought the dynamics down to almost a whisper. It felt prayer-like, so quiet was the sound. Yet it was completely audible. The tone was rich and the notes on pitch, even though Koh sounded as if he were barely breathing. It was a heart-stopping, breathtaking moment of high beauty.

It takes a virtuoso to play that softly and that solidly at the same time. And Koh was backed up with the same subtlety by the fine accompaniment provided by the scaled-down orchestra under conductor Steve Kurr.

The sublime result was nothing short of haunting, a musical moment that The Ear will remember and cherish as long as he lives.

And he wasn’t alone. A complete silence fell over the appreciative audience as Koh and the MCO were playing, and at intermission it was what everybody was talking about and wondering at. You just had to be there. It was the kind of musical experience that makes a live performance so engaging and unforgettable.

That moment of communion between soloist and ensemble by itself was enough to tell you how very much the MCO, which improves with each performance, has accomplished in its first decade.

There were other noteworthy moments too.

Of course tributes had to be paid.

So the evening started off with some brief background and introductory words from the co-founders and co-artistic directors Larry Bevic and Mindy Taranto (below).

Then Middleton Mayor Gurdip Brar (below) came on stage to read his official 10th anniversary proclamation and to urge people to applaud. He proved a jovial, good-natured cheerleader for the large audience of “good neighbors” that included many children.

When the music finally arrived, conductor Kurr (below) raised the curtain with his own original 14-minute episodic composition celebrating the “Good Neighbor City” of Middleton. It proved a fitting work for the occasion that evoked both the Midwestern harmonies of Aaron Copland and the brassy film scores of John Williams.

After intermission, the full 90-member MCO under Kurr returned and turned in a performance of Antonin Dvorak’s popular “New World” Symphony that did them all proud.

The tempo was energetic with a strong, constant pulse that didn’t falter. As usual, the string and wind sections proved outstanding – and still seem to get better each time.

But the real star this time was the brass, whose prominent part in the Dvorak symphony is hard to play. Playing consistently on pitch and expressively – they were clearly well-rehearsed — the brass boosted the whole performance and raised it to a new level. Which is exactly what the anniversary concert demanded and received.

The Ear wasn’t alone in being impressed.

A professional musician visiting from San Francisco said simply:  ”They are much better than our community orchestra.”

Is there better homage to pay to a 10th anniversary concert and to make listeners look forward to hearing more? If you aren’t going to MCO’s affordable and appealing concerts, you are only cheating yourself.

For more information about the complete season, including programs, performers, guest soloists and how to join or support the MCO, go to: http://middletoncommunityorchestra.org

If you went, what did you think of the opening anniversary concert?

Leave your opinions and good wishes in the comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Legendary Austrian pianist and scholar Paul Badura-Skoda dies at 91. In the 1960s, he was artist-in-residence at the UW-Madison School of Music

September 28, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Paul Badura-Skoda, the celebrated Austrian pianist who was equally known for his performances and his scholarship, and who was artist-in-residence at the UW-Madison in the mid-1960s until 1970, died this past Tuesday at 91.

A Vienna native, Badura-Skoda was especially known for his interpretations of major Classical-era composers who lived and worked in that city including Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

He was the only pianist to have recorded the complete sonatas by those composers on both the modern piano and the fortepiano, the appropriate period instrument.

If memory serves, Badura-Skoda’s last appearances in Madison were almost a decade ago for concerts in which he played: the last piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert; a Mozart piano concerto with the UW Chamber Orchestra; and a solo recital of Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Chopin at Farley’s House of Pianos.

But he also performed and recorded Bach, Chopin and Schumann among others. And Badura-Skoda was also renowned as a conductor, composer, editor and teacher.

You can find many of his recordings and interviews on YouTube. Normally, this blog uses shorter excerpts. But the legendary Paul Badura-Soda is special. So in the YouTube video at the bottom  you can hear Badura-Skoda’s complete last recital of Schubert (Four Impromptus, D. 899 or Op. 90), Schumann (“Scenes of Childhood”, Op. 15) and Mozart (Sonata in C Minor, K. 457). He performed it just last May at the age of 91 at the Vienna Musikverein, where the popular New Year concerts take place.

Here are links to several obituaries:

Here is one from the British Gramophone Magazine:

https://www.gramophone.co.uk/classical-music-news/pianist-paul-badura-skoda-has-died-at-the-age-of-91

Here is one from WFMT radio station in Chicago, which interviewed him:

https://www.wfmt.com/2019/09/26/pianist-paul-badura-skoda-dies-at-age-91/

Here is one, with some surprisingly good details, from Limelight Magazine:

https://www.limelightmagazine.com.au/news/paul-badura-skoda-has-died/

And here is his updated Wikipedia entry:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Badura-Skoda

But you will notice a couple of things.

One is that The Ear could not find any obituaries from such major mainstream media as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. But each had many other feature stories about and reviews of Badura-Skoda’s concerts over the years in their areas.

The other noteworthy thing is that none of the obituaries mentions Badura-Skoda’s years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music in the 1960s, where he helped to raise the profile and prestige of the School of Music. Getting Badura-Skoda to join the university was considered quite an unexpected coup.

So here are two links to UW-Madison press releases that discuss that chapter of his life and career.

Here is an archival story from 1966 when Badura-Skoda first arrived at the UW-Madison:

http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/UW/UW-idx?type=turn&entity=UW.v67i8.p0011&id=UW.v67i8&isize=text

And here is a press release that came from the UW-Madison News Service eight years ago on the occasion of one of Badura-Skoda’s many visits to and performances in Madison:

https://news.wisc.edu/writers-choice-madison-welcomes-badura-skoda-again-and-again/

Rest in Peace, maestro, and Thank You.

It would be nice if Wisconsin Public Radio paid homage with some of Badura-Skoda’s recordings since a complete edition was issued last year on the occasion of his 90th birthday.

If you wish to pay your own respects or leave your memories of Paul Badura-Skoda and his playing, please leave something in the comment section.


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Classical music: The Beethoven Year in Madison will include complete cycles of string quartets and piano trios as well as many other early, middle and late pieces. Here is a partial preview

September 21, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

As you may have already heard, 2020 is a Beethoven Year. It will mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. (He lived from mid-December of 1770 to March 26, 1827.  Dec. 17 is sometimes given as his birthday but it is really the date of his baptism. No one knows for sure the actual date of his birth.)

Beethoven, who this year overtook Mozart as the most popular composer in a British radio poll, clearly speaks to people — as you can see at the bottom in the YouTube video of a flash mob performance of the “Ode to Joy.” It has had more than 16 million views.

Locally, not all Beethoven events have been announced yet. But some that promise to be memorable are already taking shape. Many programs include early, middle and late works. And you can be sure that, although nothing formal has been announced yet, there will be special programs on Wisconsin Public Television and especially Wisconsin Public Radio.

Here is a partial round-up:

The UW’s famed Pro Arte String Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer), for example, will perform a FREE and complete cycle of Beethoven’s 16 string quartets in six concerts. It will start later this fall.

This is not the first time that the Pro Arte has done a Beethoven cycle. But it is especially fitting since that is the same Beethoven cycle that the Pro Arte was performing in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater in May of 1940 when World War II broke out and the quartet was stranded on tour in the U.S. after its homeland of Belgium was invaded and occupied by the Nazis.

That is when the ensemble was invited to become musical artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and accepted – thereby establishing the first such association in the world that became a model for many other string quartets.

The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society with the San Francisco Trio (below) plans on performing a cycle of piano trios next summer. No specific dates or programs have been announced yet.

The 20th anniversary of the Ancora String Quartet (below, in a photo by Barry Lewis) will coincide with the Beethoven Year. That is when the Ancorans will complete the cycle of 16 string quartets that they have been gradually programming over the years. Three quartets remain to be performed: Op. 59, No. 2 “Rasumovsky”, Op. 130 and Op. 131.

Adds violist Marika Fischer Hoyt: “We’ll perform Op. 130 in February (with the original final movement, NOT the “Grosse Fuge”), and we plan to do the remaining two quartets in the summer and fall of 2020.”

Here are some other Beethoven dates to keep in mind:

On Nov. 2 in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater, and as part of the WUT’s centennial celebration of its Concert Series, pianist Emanuel Ax (below, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco), who since 1974 has played many solo recitals, chamber music recitals and piano concertos in Madison, will play Beethoven’s first three solo piano sonatas, Op. 2.

On Dec. 6 at the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Piano Trio will perform the famous “Archduke” Trio, Op. 97. Also on the program are works by Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann.

On Feb. 1, UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor, who has performed all 32 piano sonatas in Madison, will continue his cycle of Beethoven symphonies as transcribed for solo piano by Franz Liszt. He will perform Symphony No. 1 and the famed Symphony No. 9, the ground-breaking “Choral” Symphony with its “Ode to Joy.” No chorus will be involved, but there will be four solo singers. Taylor said he will then complete the cycle with Symphony No. 2 at some future time.

The Mosaic Chamber Players (below, in a photo by John W. Barker) will perform two all-Beethoven programs: on Feb. 21, a FREE program offers two sonatas for violin and piano (Op. 12, No. 3 and Op. 30, No. 2, and one sonata for cello and piano (Op. 5, No. 1); on June 13, a ticketed program features three piano trios (Op. 1, No. 1; Op. 70, No. 2; and Op. 121a “Kakadu” Variations).

On May 8, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top, in a photo by Mike Gorski), under conductor Andrew Sewell (below bottom, in a photo by Alex Cruz), will perform the popular Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” – a pioneering piece of program music — to commemorate the Beethoven Year.

There is one very conspicuous absence.

You will notice that there is nothing by Beethoven programmed for the new season of the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers).

But The Ear hears rumors that music director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) is planning something special for the following season that might involve both symphonies and concertos, both original Beethoven works and perhaps “reimagined” ones.

(For example, pianist Jonathan Biss, who has just completed recording the piano sonata cycle and who performed with the MSO several years ago, has commissioned and will premiere five piano concertos related to or inspired by Beethoven’s five piano concertos.) Sorry, but as of now only rumors and not details are available for the MSO. Stay tuned!

The Ear would like to hear complete cycles of the violin sonatas and cello sonatas performed, and a couple of the piano concertos as well as the early symphonies and the famed Ninth Symphony with its “Ode to Joy” finale. He fondly remembers when DeMain and the MSO performed Symphonies Nos. 1 and 9 on the same program. Talk about bookending a career!

What Beethoven would you like to hear live?

What are your most favorite or least favorite Beethoven works?

Do you know of other Beethoven programs during the Beethoven Year? If so, please leave word in the Comment section.

And, of course, there is the inevitable question: Can you have too much Beethoven?


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Classical music: The UW-Madison School of Music seeks volunteers to help “tune” two new concert halls all-day this Thursday and Friday in the soon-to-open Hamel Music Center

September 17, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a chance for music lovers to combine civic duty with private pleasure.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music is looking for volunteers of any kind to help “tune” the two new concert halls in the soon-to-open Hamel Music Center (below), located at 740 University Avenue next to the Chazen Museum of Art’s newer wing. The official opening celebrations for the $56-million building are Oct. 25-27.

“Tuning” the hall is the term that acousticians apply to the process of adjusting the hall to how it will sound when audiences are in attendance. Halls sound very different from when they are empty to when they are occupied.

The School of Music team is looking for volunteers to help tune the larger concert hall on Thursday, Sept. 19, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and the smaller recital hall on Friday, Sept. 20, from 9:15 a.m. to 3:15 p.m.

Volunteers can be from the university of from the general public. Two halls are involved: the larger Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, which can seat up to 662; and the smaller Collins Recital Hall (below, in an architect’s rendering), which can seat up to 299.

Volunteers can study, work quietly on computers, check out the new facility, use the time as quiet time or sample for free some of the UW’s performers. Individuals and groups will be performing during the adjustments being made by the sound engineers.

Visitors will be asked to remain silently in their seats while the “commissioning” for a particular setting is in process. Breaks are scheduled for people to come and go. Start and stop times are approximate.

The musicians and kinds of music include: a symphony orchestra; a choir; brass, wind, percussion and string ensembles, including a string quartet; solo piano; and jazz.

Volunteers can attend as many sessions as they want, but they are asked to arrive 15 minutes prior to the scheduled time they wish to attend and sign up for.

For more information, including schedules and details about the kind of music to be performed and how to behave, here is a link to a story and schedules: https://www.music.wisc.edu/tuning/

If you go, use this blog’s Comment section to let The Ear know what the experience was like – even though he may also see you there.


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Classical music: The opera world is divided over accusations of sexual harassment against superstar tenor Placido Domingo. Here is how John DeMain reacted. How do you react and what do you believe?

August 24, 2019
4 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

By now, you have probably heard about the allegations of sexual harassment recently made anonymously against the still-active superstar Spanish tenor Placido Domingo (below), 78, who holds the record for the most opening-night appearances at the Metropolitan Opera.

What you might not have heard is how divided the opera world is over those accusations, which are now being formally and independently investigated.

Much of that division falls along lines of Europe versus the United States. The former has so far not cancelled upcoming appearances while the latter was quick to. And Domingo has been defended by famed Russian soprano Anna Netrebko (below, with Domingo).

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, sexual misconduct and sexual assault continue to be perhaps the most controversial issues amid many similar or more serious criminal allegations against conductors James Levine, Charles Dutoit and Daniele Gatti as well as many teachers and orchestra players.

Perhaps the best account of the divided reactions came in a story from The New York Times. Here it is:

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/18/arts/music/placido-domingo-opera-harassment.html

One sign of the difficulty in dealing with the situation can be found in the carefully worded, balanced and empathetic Facebook comment by maestro John DeMain, the music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the artistic director of the Madison Opera.

DeMain has often worked with Domingo, perhaps most notably in the famous 1992 Concert for Planet Earth in Rio de Janeiro, which DeMain conducted. (You can hear Domingo singing an aria by Puccini and see DeMain conducting the orchestra in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Says DeMain (below in a photo by Prasad): “Thinking about the Placido Domingo controversy. While I’m not in a position to take sides in this very sad situation, I would just like to say that in my many interactions with this great tenor over many decades, I personally never witnessed him do anything that was inappropriate. He was always a kind and gentle person to me and my family. I wish him and his family well through this difficult time.”

Here is a link to DeMain’s Facebook page if you would like to read comments from others or leave one of your own: https://www.facebook.com/jldemain

How do you react to the accusations?

What do you believe should happen to Domingo?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Well-Tempered Ear turns 10 today. Changes are probably in store. What do you like and dislike? What changes would you like to see or not to see?

August 20, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today – August 20, 2019 – The Well-Tempered Ear turns 10 years old.

To keep it interesting, entertaining, relevant and useful, but also to offer an easier workload for something that is a hobby, some changes are probably in store and maybe even needed.

For example, the “You Must Hear This” postings that offer pieces of classical music or stories about national and international issues often generate more traffic than local events.

And even with 2.1 million hits, subscriptions seem to have plateaued.

Perhaps all that is because, even with the explosion in classical music over the past decade, many individuals and groups now have their own websites and email newsletters.

But The Ear wants to know what you think.

What would make you and others read the blog more and pass it along?

What do you like or dislike?

Should it even continue?

What changes, if any, would you like to see – or not to see?

Whatever you decide and share, thank you for 10 years of loyal reading, positive reactions and many, many comments.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: After a year recovering from an injury, Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang says he has become a more serious musician

August 11, 2019
2 Comments

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

The Chinese pianist Lang Lang (below) has long been popular, a best-selling superstar and one of the most bankable players in the business.

Yet such was his flamboyant showmanship and self-indulgence that many of his colleagues and critics did not take him very seriously. Many thought of him more as the Liberace of the classical concert stage.

But then a serious injury to his left arm, tendonitis from over-practicing and straining, forced Lang Lang to take a year off to recover.

During that time he married. He worked with young children and music students, even funding a new piano lab. And he released a new CD (“Piano Book”) of short pieces that he has loved since his student days. (You can see Lang Lang coaching a young pianist about a Mozart sonata that played a pivotal role in his life during a master class in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Lang Lang now says that during that recovery period he rethought everything about his career and has made some major changes from practicing to performing.

And what seems to have emerged, at age 37, is a new approach that emphasizes more seriousness and regularity coupled with greater respect for the music he plays.

Time will tell – in both live and recorded performances — how much has really changed in Lang Lang’s approach to making music.

Nonetheless, the dramatic change was recounted recently in a comprehensive story in The New York Times, which even goes back to trace the pianist’s career, including failures, from his early childhood (below) in China.

Read it and see what you think.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/24/arts/music/lang-lang-piano.html

Then tell us in the Comment section if it has changed how you think about Lang Lang.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: A veteran reviewer bids farewell with a rave review of this summer’s last concert by the Willy Street Chamber Players and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor

July 29, 2019
18 Comments

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a very special posting, the final review that will be written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker.

Barker (below), who is dealing with medical issues, is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who wrote for The Capital Times, Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who, until two weeks ago, hosted an early music show once a month on a Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gave pre-concert lectures in Madison.

Please use the comment section to join The Ear in thanking Barker for his many years of public service and wishing him well.

By John W. Barker

I had to miss the first concert this summer by the Willy Street Chamber Players (below) on July 12; and the next one, on July 19, was cancelled because of power failures. But the final one, last Friday night, was well worth waiting for — one of the really memorable events of the year, I think.

The program, performed at the usual near East Side venue of the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street, began with some short items.

First, there was a set of Three Nocturnes (1924) for piano trio — violin, cello and piano — by Ernest Bloch. They contain elements of the Hebraic sound that Bloch cultivated but also had their own individualities, the first two contemplative and the third marked “tempestuoso.” Interesting was Bloch’s alternating uses of muting the strings.

After this came an example of the short pieces for string quartet by the contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery, her “Voodoo Dolls” (2008). Much is packed into this five-minute piece. A few lyrical touches aside, it sounded like a hoedown gone crazy, full of quite novel sounds, including rhythmic thumping on the wood of the instruments.

All that was a curtain-raiser to the big event of the program: the Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, by Antonin Dvorak. This 40-minute work is one of the composer’s best-known chamber music compositions, and one of the standouts in the whole chamber music literature.

The very opening notes of the first movement bring a flood of warm well-being.  (After hearing just that, I commented, “I haven’t felt such happiness in months.”)

The fecundity and richness of invention pervaded the entire work. For me, its high point is the second movement, in which Dvorak (below) used the Czech formula of the dumka, a kind of folk music lament that is paced slow-fast-slow-fast. (You can hear the Dumka movement, played by the Jerusalem Quartet and pianist Stefan Vladar, in the YouTube video below.)

Dvorak liked to play viola in chamber music, and so he always wrote some good things for himself. The sublime passages for viola in this movement were played with such transcendent beauty by Rachael Hauser (below) – who is leaving Madison for New York City — that I felt I was hearing the composer’s voice directly. Put simply, this was one of the greatest examples of chamber-music performance that I have ever heard.

All of the players, many of whom play in the Madison Symphony Orchestra,  of course matched remarkable skill with humane vitality and vibrancy.

And a measure of the Willys’ standards was the fact that they were able to draw as a partner no less than that magnificent UW-Madison music school pianist, Christopher Taylor (below), who also performed the same Dvorak Piano Quintet in the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where he won a bronze medal. Much of his excellence here was demonstrated by the fact that he did not play the star, but joined with the Willys in perfect collegial integration.

This ends the Willy Street group’s fifth summer season. As a symbol of vibrancy and fresh spirit, they are among the most important of Madison’s classical music world today. They have drawn steadily growing audiences, and the house was truly packed for this concert.  We can only hope that they will continue to brighten that world in the years ahead.

I am now ending my time as a music critic. I can think of no more satisfying a final review to write than of the Willy Street Chamber Players.


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